‘Wild West primary’ could be ahead to fill Ken Buck’s seat

Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
Republican state Reps. Mike Lynch, Richard Holtorf and Perry Will, from left, in the House chamber on Wednesday, May 11, 2022, as the legislature wrapped up its final day of the 2022 session.

Rep. Ken Buck’s retirement news presents a rare opportunity for ambitious Republicans in Colorado: an open congressional seat that a Republican is nearly certain to win.

Which all means, CO-04 voters can expect a hotly contested primary race with interest from a plethora of candidates.

“It will be a wild, wild west type of primary,” said GOP political consultant Josh Penry.

Penry noted this is an increasingly rare opportunity for Colorado Republicans who want to win higher office in a state that appears to just keep getting bluer. 

Colorado’s 4th congressional district is the most conservative in the state. According to congressional redistricting data, it has a 26 point Republican advantage. While geographically, it covers nearly all of the Eastern Plains, the largest population centers are in Front Range communities north and south of Denver.

Penry said he expects all candidates who run will be conservative with “small shades of gray differences” between them when it comes to the issues, so the contest will be a “difference in style, more than substance. Where they’re from, versus where they stand.”

The primary race could also come down to tactics. Penry said it will be about “who will be willing to do the work, raise the money and put in the sweat equity” required to meld the three power centers of the district: Weld county, Douglas County and the Eastern Plains. 

“I could see four, even five candidates making the [primary] ballot,” said Dick Wadhams, a Republican consultant and former GOP state party chair. “It’ll be a hard fought race. An open seat like this, in a safe Republican district doesn't come along very often.”

The primary is eight months away and while that might seem like a long time, Wadhams said it’s not. Candidates will have to jump in quickly to create an organization to raise money and actually get out and campaign across the large district. 

Wadhams said of the names being floated, “I don’t see anybody who’d clear the field,” so organization will be key.

Even before Buck’s announcement that he would not seek reelection, he was already facing a primary challenge. Republican Justin Schreiber, a veteran who described the IRS, ATF & FBI as domestic terrorists, filed paperwork to run, as did Weld County Council member Trent Leisy of Windsor, who tried to capitalize on the latest news to introduce himself to voters. 

“My RINO primary opponent, Ken Buck, just DROPPED OUT OF THE RACE over President Trump's ACCURATE rigged election claims,” he wrote on social media. 

State Rep. Richard Holtorf of Akron has also launched an exploratory committee to potentially primary Buck. 

But the fact that it’s no longer a primary race against a five-term incumbent, but a wide open seat, changes the calculus for many potential candidates. 

One day after Buck’s announcement, conservative radio talk show host Deborah Flora, launched her bid with a produced video.

“I’m a business owner and a mom who has been fighting from the school board to the state house for our families and our freedoms. I’m ready to take that fight to Washington,” she said. She previously ran in the GOP primary for U.S Senate in 2022 but didn’t get enough support to make the ballot.

She also highlighted issues she plans to tackle if elected, such as energy independence, border security, public safety and parental rights. Flora said she would step down from her show during her congressional campaign.

It’s the first of what’s expected to be many announcements. 

“I am indeed considering a run but haven’t sat down with my family to see if it is workable,” said

former Republican state lawmaker and current Logan County Commissioner Jerry Sonnenberg. 

He’s from Sterling and a farmer.

House Minority Leader Rep. Mike Lynch of Wellington also didn’t rule out a bid. 

In a text message he said he knows these are concerning times for the country and said he and his wife are discussing “...how my background as a West Point graduate, Army veteran, small business owner, and Colorado House Minority Leader could best be used to serve the people of my state and our nation. Stay tuned.”

A number of other names are also being floated for the seat, including the Republican Party’s most recent gubernatorial candidate, Heidi Gahnal, radio host and former District Attorney George Brauchler, former U.S Senate candidate Gino Campana, and former state lawmaker Tom Wiens. 

However some possible contenders quickly said no to a run.

Former GOP state Party Chair Kristi Burton Brown said she seriously considered jumping into the race, “but with the ages of my kids, this isn’t the right time.” She said she’s highly likely to run for the state Board of Education seat for CO-04 instead. 

Jeff Hunt, who directs Colorado Christian University’s Centennial Institute, also took himself out of the running. "Nope not interested,” he texted. “Too many small kids at home.”